For foreign managers, Chinese Millennials present a unique set of management challenges

China has gone through tremendous economic and cultural changes in the last 50 years. One of the biggest value shifts has occurred between older and younger generations.

Chinese millennials, age 18 to 35, represent 385 million people, or 28 percent of the population. By 2025, 75 percent of the workforce in China will be millennials.

As a global executive coach for over 20 years, I have coached and worked closely with Chinese leaders and employees across multiple generations. In this role, I have noticed several trends that distinguish the younger Chinese population from their older colleagues.

Younger, urban Chinese tend to be more influenced by global trends than older, more rural Chinese. They tend to be more individualistic, direct, and open. They are entrepreneurial, mobile-dependent, and tech-savvy. And, they are most likely the only child in their families.

If you’re a foreign manager working with Chinese “knowledge workers” across generations, how do you earn their respect? What do they expect from their managers?

The following tips can help foreign managers bridge the generational — and international — divide with millennial Chinese workers.
Show caring and warmth
Good managers in China are often seen as parental figures to their employees. They maintain a delicate balance of establishing authority as the boss and showing personal concern for their employees.

For example, showing consideration for the family situations of your employees can demonstrate that you are a well-rounded leader who has the qualities required for managing effectively in this relationship-oriented society.
Know your business
Chinese employees expect their managers to have strong technical knowledge and business acumen. They tend to expect clear directions from their boss. Share information about business direction, vision, and strategies with your employees on a regular basis.
Seek input
Although Chinese employees expect a manager to “be in charge,” they also appreciate when managers ask for their ideas and opinions before making decisions. Chinese workers respect a manager who takes the time to listen to their employees and sincerely considers their suggestions.

However, after seeking input, leaders must clearly communicate the decision and roadmap to employees. Young Chinese employees want to provide input but, ultimately, rely on their boss for guidance and to make the final decision.
Understand “face”
The concept of “face” (mianzi) plays an important role in business and society.

It is much more nuanced than the American understanding of “face.” Mianzi is about dignity, status, prestige, respect, and honor all at once.

Saving FaceTo “save face” with Chinese employees, never criticize their ideas in front of a group or put them on the spot that may cause embarrassment. To “give face” and build relationships, show proper respect and genuinely appreciate their contribution.

The stereotype is that the Chinese are shy, self-deprecating, and humble. There is truth to this — when receiving a compliment, the Chinese tend to brush it off, saying things like “I am not as good as you think” or “My accomplishment is nothing compared to yours.” But, these comments don’t reveal the whole truth. Inside, they may accept the compliment and agree with you, ultimately thriving on such feedback.
Demonstrate maturity
Talking too much may be perceived as a sign of immaturity or ignorance. Take the time to listen and get to know your employees. Avoid showing strong, negative emotions, such as anger or aggression. The Chinese respect those who control their emotions in public.

Managers should lead by example by modeling the professional behaviors they expect their employees to demonstrate.
Show interest in their development
Have conversations with your employees about their future with the company and their career paths. Take the time to coach them on their work performance and provide both positive and constructive feedback to help them improve. The talent market is very competitive and Chinese workers appreciate their bosses showing interest in their professional and career development.

Foreign managers must take the time to get to know their millennial employees, understand what motivates them, treat them with respect, take their input seriously, and build trust.

If you do this, you will do more than “save face.” You will earn their respect and loyalty.

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